Yet another head-scratcher of a referendum question

The sleeping giant that is Augusta emitted some rumbles in the past week. Bolstered by the court decision that said the Ethics Commission could proceed with releasing Clean Election funds to qualified candidates despite the Governor’s refusal to issue executive orders to that effect, the Ethics Commission also agreed to issue another funding round held up by a presumed typographical error in the bill that provided the funds.

Interpretation of the law is best left to the lawyers, but as to the justice of this move — oh, yeah! Candidates operated in good faith, about 200 of them complying with the requirements of the program.

There are those who pooh-poohed the efforts to qualify, but it is not a simple matter. Central to the program is the requirement to collect a designated number of “qualifying contributions” to indicate that the candidate has some level of support. House candidates must get 60 such contributions, Senate candidates 175, and gubernatorial candidates 3,200. Does that seem easy? It doesn’t seem easy.

It is one thing to ask someone to sign a petition. It is entirely another to ask him or her to fork over $5. There are forms to be signed by the donors, records to be kept by the candidates and deadlines to be met.

This year, candidates who achieved the goal had the rug pulled out from under them. Just when the campaign season was heating up with the approach of fall, their funding was cut off, leaving them with a significant disadvantage compared to candidates not in the Clean Election program. Totally unfair.

That has now been rectified by the Ethics Commission. It remains to be seen whether this decision will be challenged. Let’s hope that we can just get on with the business of electing a new Legislature.

The other simmering issue that bubbled over is referendum Question No. 1 on the fall ballot, designed to fund a “universal home care” plan for those 65 or over, or the disabled. This is shaping up to be another good example of the limitations of referendums. Once sufficient certified petitions are filed, these proposals are not required to go to a public hearing before they appear on a statewide ballot.

When laws are processed through the Legislature, the hearing process is where the bugs are identified and exterminated before the bill goes to the full Legislature for a vote. Despite the best efforts of bill drafters, referendums are being passed with unintended consequences. A good example is the marijuana legalization bill that initially would have allowed those under 18 years of age to possess and use up to 2½ ounces of marijuana.

Now comes the ballot question on the Universal Home Care Program, to be funded by a “new 3.8 percent tax on individuals and families with Maine wage and adjusted gross income above the amount subject to Social Security taxes, which is $128,400 in 2018” (from the ballot wording).

There was plenty of opposition to the question from the get-go, with opponents objecting to a new tax, and one that might disincentivize people at that income level from moving to or staying in Maine. But a new objection is being raised. Some claim it will be a “double dip,” first taxing the individual and then the family unit.

Governor Paul LePage is on the “no” side — or make that the “NO!!!” side. With his usual restraint, he labeled it a “benign-sounding, feel-good referendum,” “oversimplified” and with a “real downside for Maine’s economy.” Its backers, whom he refers to as “those socialists,” are “disingenuous.”

The Governor cites data from the state economist’s office that project a loss of $1.4 billion to $2 billion in personal income within the next five years. But it is the question of whether the wording allows for taxing both individuals and then again, when married, the family. And does it allow taxation of a couple whose combined income is over the threshold even though their individual incomes are not?

This sends the question to the Attorney General’s Office for interpretation. That would be the attorney general, who is running for governor herself, Janet Mills, who has been feuding with Governor LePage for much of his two terms in office. This could end in another referendum passed by voters and then greatly messed with by the Legislature.

In closing, the name of Chris Cousins must be invoked. Chris passed away last week at the tender age of 42. Those who subscribed to the Bangor Daily’s “Daily Brief” blog found a cheerful, well-informed email in their inbox most days. Chris had the kind of relationships in Augusta that led to plenty of background, and that’s what political reporting is all about. He was always upbeat and never took a mean shot at anyone. It is a journalistic voice extinguished all too soon.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Retired nurse and former independent Maine State Senator.